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(Contributed by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Pacific Southwest Region, DOC, and the Southern California Conference, UCC)

Complexity and Ambiguity: How Do UCC’ers and Disciples Handle It?

    The world becomes ever more complex as we move into the 21st century.  Religion is no exception.  Recent developments provide many examples.   An article in “The Christian Century” describes how verses in Psalm 139 have come to be seen and used in opposite ways by different groups.  The Psalmist says to God, “For it was you who formed my inward parts.  You knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”    For decades now, Psalm 139 has been one of the favorite biblical citations of the antiabortion movement, printed on posters in crisis pregnancy centers.  More recently, it has been tied to the use of high-resolution ultrasounds.  The interpretation is that the fetus in the womb, made in God’s image, is precious to God.   Recently, however, the same Psalm has emerged as a source of strength for gay and lesbian Christians.   Some have found the very same verses playing a key role in their coming out, and in feeling good about their own sexuality.  Gay and lesbian believers have felt blessed by the words the Psalm enables them to say: that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made;” that their sexuality, which as with straight people pervades every part of their being, is a good divine creation.   Yet there are also other considerations in applying these ancient words to our situation.  There is evidence that some people are born with a predisposition to alcoholism, for instance.  The question can be raised, “Did God knit that presupposition in, in the womb?”   How do we discern the biblical meaning and the Christian truth in contexts like this?

     Another type of ambiguity comes in surveying developments in Christian communities different from our own free church, mainline, liberal tradition.  Charles Colson, the Watergate felon who became a hero of the evangelical Protestant churches, has passed away at the age of 80.  Repentant for his work as a “hatchet man” for President Nixon, which sent him to prison, on his release Colson founded Prison Fellowship, a ministry to bring Bible study and the Christian message to inmates and their families.  Today, Prison Fellowship has more than 14,000 volunteers working in more than 1,300 prisons across the country.  Prison Fellowship also provides postrelease pastoring for ex-convicts and supplies Christmas gifts to 300,000 kids who have a locked-up parent.   On the other hand, Colson not only never raised the issue of excessive American reliance on prisons and especially excessive imprisonment of minorities.  He also opposed health care reform, calling it a “Nazi” policy.  And he was very active in opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage.

     In the Roman Catholic realm, Pope Benedict XVI has issued a crackdown on the organization representing most of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion, and women’s ordination.  Benedict, who recently ordered the silencing of priests who spoke out against the sexual abuse crisis, and had earlier approved a Vatican pronouncement that the ordination of women was as grave a sin as pedophilia, was known earlier in his career, before his election as Pope, as an “enforcer” of true doctrine.   For liberal Catholics and non-Catholics who know how important the Roman Church is to the world, and how very much good it does in direct service and in advocacy for the poor, immigrants, the sick, etc., such actions are saddening.  How do we in the DOC and the UCC maintain the right ecumenical balance, reaching out to, seeking unity with, and praying for Christians with very different stances than our own, while maintaining firmly and intelligently, but also with humility, our own position on the most difficult issues of our time?

Conscious Breathing: A Spiritual Gift from the East

      For most of us, most of the time, breathing is an unconscious action.  It is the most basic necessity for being alive, yet we pay hardly any attention to it.  This has begun to change in America with increased health consciousness.  We have begun to learn that slow, deep breathing is good for us physically. Those with chronic sleep difficulties are finding that right breathing can bring them the rest that has eluded them.   An even more important development has come through the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism on our shores, especially the disciplines of yoga and meditation.  Both of the latter place enormous emphasis on proper conscious breathing.  To become more aware of our breathing is to become more aware that we exist, and that we are capable of direct connection with God.  Both the movements of yoga and the still sitting of Zen meditation depend on awareness of the breath.  This awareness is what enables concentration, focus: what the Buddhists call “mindfulness,” which today is being shown scientifically to be good for people on all levels.  

     There has always been in the Christian tradition a knowledge of  the importance of the breath.  The Hebrew word “ruah” and the Greek word “pneuma,” translated as “spirit”, meant “breath.  Nowadays some theologians refer to the “Holy Breath” instead of the Holy Spirit.  Yet breathing as a spiritual practice, a way of returning us to our true selves and thereby also coming into the presence of God, was largely neglected, except in some of the monasteries.  In God’s providence, however, breathing became central in the non-Christian religions of the East.  Now through the interfaith relationships of our age, we are learning their breathing practices and realizing on a new level what our own Scriptures mean when they talk about the Breath of God.  On April 15, the local committee of the global Parliament of the world’s Religions sponsored a meditation conference at the Soka Gakkai Buddhist center in Santa Monica.  Some sixteen groups, mostly representing spiritual communities influenced by Buddhist and Hindu conceptions and practices, but with a few Abahamic (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) groups also, presented their meditation practices, which prominently included breath awareness and discipline.  The keynote address was given by Dr. James Doty, a neurosurgeon on the faculty of Stanford University, who shared evidence from contemporary neuroscience that meditative practices lead to a deepened sense of and capacity for compassion, so needed in today’s world.  Disciples and UCC’ers interested in making contact with teachers of meditation and breath practice can contact Dr. Jeff Utter, 626-794-1839.

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